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Peace and Conflict

President Zelensky Addresses Israel over Zoom

1. President Zelensky speaks to Israeli lawmakers and the public

What happened: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a speech on Zoom to members of the Israeli Knesset yesterday. 

  • Almost all the MKs logged in to watch the speech, except for the Joint List Party that boycotted the event. The speech was also broadcasted live across all Israeli TV channels, as well as a large screening in Tel Aviv for thousands of pro-Ukraine supporters.
  • In his speech to the Knesset, Zelensky drew a parallel between Ukrainian and Jewish history, between the current conflict and the Nazi effort to destroy the Jews in the Holocaust. He said: “We are in different countries and in completely different conditions. But the threat is the same: for both us and you, the total destruction of the people, state, culture. And even of the names: Ukraine, Israel.”
  • He quoted former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was born in Kyiv, saying: “We intend to remain alive. Our neighbours want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.”
  • He connected past atrocities committed by the Nazis in Babi Yar, where Russian missiles now strike, and recent strikes on the city of Uman, a site of Jewish pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. 
  • Zelensky continued: “Everyone in Israel knows that your missile defence is the best. It is powerful. Everyone knows that your weapon is strong. Everyone knows you’re doing great. You know how to defend your state interests, the interests of your people. And you can definitely help us protect our lives, the lives of Ukrainians, the lives of Ukrainian Jews.
  • He asked, “Why we can’t get weapons from you. Or why Israel has not imposed strong sanctions against Russia. Why it doesn’t put pressure on Russian business.” 
  • He concluded by saying, “Ukrainians have made their choice. 80 years ago. They rescued Jews. That is why the Righteous Among the Nations are among us. People of Israel, now you have such a choice.”
  • Later in the evening, Zelensky made another speech where he struck a more conciliatory tone. He recognised that “Israel has its interests, strategy to protect its citizens," adding, that he was grateful for Prime Minister Bennett’s efforts at mediating between the sides. He concluded “that sooner or later we will begin to have talks with Russia, possibly in Jerusalem. That's the right place to find peace. If possible.”
  • Earlier he had said “mediation can be between states, not between good and evil”.

Reactions to the speech:

  • Prime Minister Bennett said: “We are managing this crisis sensitively and are striking a balance among a range of complex considerations. Israel is extending its hand to help with the crisis in Ukraine in a range of different and diverse channels. We are managing this regrettable crisis in a sensitive, generous and responsible way, while striking a balance among the various complex considerations. The Jewish people and the Israeli public can be proud of the contribution and aid from the State of Israel to the citizens of Ukraine.”
  • Foreign Minister Yair Lapid issued a statement which read, “I reiterate my condemnation of the attack on Ukraine and thank President Zelensky for sharing his feelings and the plight of the Ukrainian people with members of the Knesset and the government. We will continue to assist the Ukrainian people as much as we can and will never turn our backs to the plight of people who know the horrors of war.”
  • Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel (New Hope) said: “I appreciate the Ukrainian president, and support the Ukrainian people in heart and deed, but the terrible history of the Holocaust cannot be rewritten. A genocide that was carried out on Ukrainian soil as well. The war is awful, but the comparison to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the final solution is an outrage.”
  • MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said: “The saying goes that one shouldn’t judge a person when in his time of need, but had the speech that was given by Zelensky, the Jewish president of Ukraine, been given during normal times, we would say that it borders on Holocaust denial. War is always terrible, and the shelling and territorial conquests are unbearable for the Ukrainian people, but any comparison between a regular war, as awful as it might be, and the annihilation of millions of Jews in the gas chambers as the final solution, is an absolute distortion of history.”
  • MK Efrat Rayten (Labour) said: “It was a complex situation, not only because of the constraints of a Zoom call, but also because of the stern remarks by Ukraine President Zelenskyy. As hard as it is, we must not forget that the president represents a country and millions of citizens who are fighting for their lives.”

Context: Prime Minister Bennett has continued his mediation efforts, speaking to both Zelensky and Russian President Putin numerous times in the last few weeks, including flying to Moscow to meet Putin. 

  • The mediation begun as an initiative by President Zelensky and is being conducted in full coordination with the US and other Western countries.   
  • Zelensky alluded to Israeli interests that necessitate Israel maintaining relations with Russia. This primarily relates to vital Israeli security interests and the deconfliction mechanism with Russia over the skies in Syria.
  • The Joint List boycotted Zelenksy's speech because the prominent faction within the party is Hadash, the Israeli Communist Party, that has historic affinity with Russia. In addition, Mansour Dahamsheh, the party’s secretary-general, told The Times of Israel, “Our position is that NATO and its leader America imposed this war.” 
  • Israel is also concerned for the safely of Jews in Ukraine and Russia. 
  • Since the conflict began, over 13,500 Ukrainians have arrived in Israel, of whom 3,500 are eligible to receive new immigrant status under Law of Return. 
  • In early March more than 100 tonnes of humanitarian aid were delivered to Ukraine from Israel, including 17 tonnes of medical equipment and medicines, Israeli water purification systems and emergency water supply kits, as well as thousands of tents, blankets, sleeping bags and outerwear. An additional 15 tonnes of humanitarian aid, including medicines, food, hygiene, clothing, was later sent to refugees on Ukraine's border with Moldova by the Israeli volunteer organisation United Hatzalah.
  • IsraAID, an Israeli non-governmental humanitarian organisation, has been operating in Moldova since the start of the Russian invasion. It has opened safe spaces in multiple shelters in the capital and on the border itself, as well as several Mobile Medical Clinics with Russian and Ukrainian-speaking doctors and nurses from Israel, providing resilience kits and post-trauma support to vulnerable women and children.
  • Meanwhile Labour, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen Meir Cohen has extended national insurance to volunteers helping in Ukraine. 

Looking ahead: Israel is setting up a field hospital in Ukraine, that will begin to function later this week. The hospital will offer both paediatric and adult hospitalisation facilities, an intensive care unit, delivery room and first aid clinic. 

  • The field hospital will also make extensive use of advanced telemedicine technologies.